Commission speaks, overrides vetoes
Carter County commissioners used a trio of votes to overturn the mayoral veto of the county budget during a special called meeting Monday – a meeting that saw controversy about who was allowed to speak and who was not.
County Mayor Leon Humphrey vetoed all three resolutions that make up the county budget on July 23 – one setting the tax rate, one making appropriations for the various funds and one making appropriations to nonprofit charitable funds.
Monday’s special meeting was called to address all three of the mayoral vetoes.
When Commission Chairman Tom “Yogi” Bowers called the meeting to order, he said the first order of business was consideration of the mayoral veto on the tax rate resolution.
Commissioner Buford Peters made a motion to overturn the mayoral veto on the tax rate resolution and received a second by Commissioner Lawrence Hodge.
Humphrey asked if he could address the commission regarding his reasons behind the veto. Bowers said Humphrey could speak to the commission if he kept his comments brief.
“I’ll be as brief as I can,” Humphrey said. “It’s a complex matter.”
“Not as most of us see it,” Bowers replied.
Humphrey said the number one reason behind his veto of the budget approved by the commission on July 21 was his concern over the legality of amendments made to budget before its passage.
He quoted an excerpt from the state law regarding county budgets that said, “The county legislative body may alter or revise the proposed budget except as to the provision for debt service requirements and for other expenditures required by law.” He also cited an opinion by Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper in which the attorney general opined a county commission would be in violation of state law if the commission voted to alter the debt service portion of a proposed budget after the public hearing on the budget is held.
The mayor said he has spoken with many residents regarding the budget and said those he had spoken with are “very frustrated” by the budget and the actions taken by the commission.
“I have been assured by these citizens if this veto is overturned, they will hire legal counsel and seek an injunction,” Humphrey said. “Only the attorneys will benefit” if the commission’s actions lead to a lawsuit, he added.
Humphrey told commissioners it was possible to balance the budget with only a 4-cent tax raise instead of the 12-cent increase passed by the commission. He suggested moving the $800,000 that rolled back into the general fund from the 2013-14 budget into the debt service fund. Once that money was transferred, he said, only 4 cents would need to be added to the tax rate to balance the debt service fund.
The mayor also cited concerns with a proposed middle school project, adding he is not the only person who believes the project is advancing too rapidly. Humphrey referenced a letter sent to him and to members of the commission by Carter County Board of Education member Jerry McMahan asking the commissioners not to overturn the veto on the budget.
After Humphrey’s comments, several members of the audience applauded and Peters called for a vote on the motion. Bowers said several commissioners had already requested to speak on the issue and would be allowed to do so before the vote.
Commissioner L.C. Tester said he also had concerns with the proposed middle school project, which received funding for architect’s fees and design work in the budget passed by the commission.
“I think we are rushing this,” Tester said. “I am not against building a school but I am against rushing this.”
“I think we need to not override this veto,” he added.
Commissioner John Lewis asked County Attorney Keith Bowers for a legal opinion on whether or not the amendments to the budget made by the commission violated state law, as the state attorney general opinion said.
While Keith Bowers did not offer an opinion on the legality of the budget, he did offer advice to the commission. “If I wanted to keep the county out of litigation, which is always my goal, I would stick with the debt service proposed by the budget committee,” he said. “If you want to be safe and avoid a lawsuit, then don’t let’s be a test case.”
Commissioner Sonja Culler said she would like to hear from Director of Schools Kevin Ward as to whether or not any member of the school board had previously voted against the proposed middle school project.
In response Ward said the board unanimously passed two motions dealing with the school project – one to approve purchase of the land and the other to allow Ward to seek funding for the construction of the school from the county through the budget process – during its May meeting.
Commissioner Ronnie Trivett also asked to speak but that request was denied by Tom Bowers. Bowers said a vote on the motion had been called for and that Trivett hadn’t asked to speak before Peters called for the vote.
The motion to overturn the veto on the tax rate passed on a vote of 16-7. Commissioners Hodge, Peters, Willie Campbell, Joel Street, Richard Winters, Harry Sisk, Bowers, Steve Lowrance, JoAnn Blankenship, Bobbie Gouge-Dietz, Ken Arney, Steve Chambers, Culler, Russell Kyte, Bill Armstrong and Pat Hicks all cast votes in favor of overturning the veto. Commissioners Nancy Brown, Trivett, Charles Von Cannon, Tester, Lewis, Scott Sams and Robert Gobble all voted against overturning the veto.
After the vote, a motion was made by Chambers and seconded by Arney to overturn the veto on the budget resolution setting appropriations for the various funds.
Trivett then asked to speak and said he would like to hear from McMahan regarding his budget concerns.
Tom Bowers denied the request by Trivett, saying only members of the commission could speak during a special called meeting.
Brown then questioned why Ward was allowed to speak if others were not.
“He was asked a specific question,” Tom Bowers said. Trivett responded he would ask McMahan a specific question and Tom Bowers again denied the request to allow McMahan to speak.
McMahan told the Star on Wednesday he had requested to be added to the agenda but was told no public comments were being allowed and no speakers were being added to the agenda because the meeting was a special called meeting.
Members of the commission voted 16-7 to overturn the veto on the resolution setting appropriations to the various funds. Those voting in favor of overturning the veto were Hodge, Peters, Campbell, Street, Winters, Sisk, Bowers, Lowrance, Blankenship, Gouge-Dietz, Arney, Chambers, Culler, Kyte, Armstrong and Hicks. Commissioners casting dissenting votes were Brown, Trivett, Von Cannon, Tester, Lewis, Sams and Gobble.
During the vote, Tom Bowers called Von Cannon out of order for statements the commissioner made while casting his vote.
According to county policy, when an issue comes to a vote by the commission that would personally affect a commissioner because he or she is a county employee, that commissioner must read a disclaimer statement acknowledging their conflict of interest in the matter. They must also state that their vote is based, not on personal gain, but upon their convictions and their desire to serve the citizens they were elected to represent.
When Von Cannon’s name was called to cast his vote, he began to read from a disclaimer statement despite the fact he is not a county employee. The statement read by Von Cannon began with a reference to his oath to defend the constitution of Tennessee. But before he could get through his statement, Tom Bowers called him out of order. Von Cannon was not allowed to continue, but did cast his vote against overturning the veto.
Following the vote, a motion was made by Hodge and seconded by Arney to overturn the veto on the resolution making appropriations to nonprofit charitable funds. The portion of the budget dealing with charitable funds allocates funding from the county to outside agencies such as the volunteer fire departments, Carter County 911, the Senior Citizens’ Center, the Boys and Girls Club and the public library.
The motion to overturn the veto passed unanimously by the commission.
The commission adjourned immediately after the vote and Humphrey expressed his disappointment.
“A major injustice took place today,” Humphrey said. “This commission had an opportunity to make things right and do what is best for the citizens of Carter County.”
“It was obvious they did not want to put forth a small amount of effort to revisit this budget,” he added.